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A Hundred Gourds 2:3 June 2013
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From There to Here: Conversations with John E. Carley


| Introduction | page 2 | page 3 | page 4 | page 5 | page 6 | page 7 |


Interview with John E. Carley, continued


Willie: What is it of Basho's work that enthrals you so?

John: Ooops! Probably the bogosity. Or the soap opera dilemma - will he embrace the consequences of his convictions, shave his head properly for once and renounce his creative efforts as attachment, or will poetry prove too strong and condemn him to another turn of the wheel? Madonna Louise Ciccone and virgin birth come to mind. But the tension is there nonetheless.

Also, the fact that he's stunningly modern, a genius. And, ever since I read Yuasa at age 20, has been standing just behind my left shoulder whispering in my ear. Oh my God, the parish priest was right - that must make Basho the devil! Sure and bejabbers.

Willie: Do you have specific opinions of the existing translated literature? Earl Miner and Hiroaki Odagiri's work comes to mind. Any others?

John: Who's picking up the legal bill for this Willie? And I did explain I hated everybody, right?

Just sticking to renku, the principle problem with most translations is that they are done by people who are not very good poets. Often not poets at all. They certainly haven't spent years writing sequence after sequence. This is a shame because all that nankainozuke rubbish just masks the fact that the skills needed now are exactly the same as they were 300 years ago. It's very difficult to translate something if you haven't got a clue what's going on.

Miner and Odagiri are a case in point. They dismember any concept of sequence. Decouple the verses. And then translate the alleged meaning of each. Even at that most basic level some of the interpretations are baffling - there's a superb hatchet job by Esperanza Ramirez-Christensen on a search engine near you. But the point they utterly fail to get is that the greatest artistry lies in the flow of the verses. Hence their lunatic idea of printing continuously re-combined pairs.

More generally, the tendency of academics to isolate the verses one from another, often buffering each with a passage of commentary, whilst excellent in the context of literary history, provides fertile ground for the greatest heresy of all: a constructive blindness to phonics.

If a verse stands alone then its structure is largely self-referencing. In the case of haikai this means that, other than for a perfunctory bow in the direction of two or three lines, we can do what the hell we like. Because we already know what our mission is (should we choose to accept it): to be absolutely unequivocal about getting the content across. And if that means working in a bit of extra context ... all well and good. After all the text we're translating was written as free verse in the first place, right?

Well, no it wasn't actually. But those funny men in skirts probably only spent so much time on things like metrics, inflection, assonance, consonance and blah de blah because they were too damn stupid to know better. Not like us intellectuals, eh?

Willie: Would you call your approach "liberal" in contrast to the past or existing field of English language renku prognosticators?

John: No. It sometimes looks that way. But only because I'm so far to the right I'm coming round again. And by the way, please don't waste time researching nankainozuke (obscure linkage) in that passage above. I've just made it up.

English language renku (sigh). It took me at least ten years to be sure I was seeing what I thought I was seeing. What a mess! Half-truths are so much more pernicious than lies. Add a dollop of deliberate mystification ...

The problem seems to stem from a ghastly lock step. On the one hand we have many Japanese sources unable or unwilling to do anything other than describe the art in a strictly local historical context. And on the other, a group of early adopters too hurried or too arrogant to be bothered with anything other than the most superficial gloss.

To be clear: I don't care about renku. I care about poetry. I simply think that, if you want to go around declaring that you write renku, it's best to find out what it is in the first place. After which you can adapt, ignore, develop, or whatever according to your muse. Art is the beginning, middle, and end. The old fraud called it fuga no makoto.

Now as it happens I really think Basho was on to something. I like his style. And I'm intrigued by the developments that people have offered to that style, particularly over the course of the last 50 years. But the reason why I obsess about the technical stuff is not because I think people should like what I like, or do what I do. Just that, with the benefit of half-way accurate information, you can make whatever choice you like.

Willie: To what extent do you place the importance of allusion and allegory in composing haikai verse?

John: I think it's mostly a question of personal style. It doesn't take too much ability as a poet to understand that with very compact verse forms, large and complex tropes can easily overpower the poem. Short imagist verse simply won't work when attention is diverted to the surface of the text - when the words usurp the evocation.

But the raspy old saw that 'haiku doesn't do poetics' is just another case of mid-life martyrs to self-hatred. Not to mention good old fashioned ignorance. Allusion and allegory have been core techniques for centuries. The Japanese love homophones and cognates. And what Ezra Pound liked to refer to as euphony is important not just to verses but to inter-verse linkage.

Ultimately it all comes down to artistry. But a little bit of knowledge can help.





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Picture Frame, photo art by John Carley


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